RALEIGH — Next year's student reassignment plan for Wake County schools could partially determine the future of the county's nationally recognized magnet school program.
Some parents are urging the expansion of magnet programs into suburban areas that haven't previously had those coveted offerings. At the same time, school board members are balancing how to allow Southeast Raleigh children to go to schools in their communities without crippling the magnet schools, which are mostly located in inner-city Raleigh.
The magnet school program has been at the heart of Wake's diversity efforts for nearly 30 years; of the county's 163 schools, 33 are magnets. The goal has been to offer unique programs such as additional foreign languages and electives at magnet schools in downtown Raleigh and Southeast Raleigh to entice suburban students to attend. To help free up space and to diversify suburban schools, thousands of children in Southeast Raleigh have been bused to North Raleigh, western Wake and Garner.
"There is a delicate balance with the magnet program that we need to maintain," school board member Kevin Hill said.
A winning program
Wake's magnet program has received accolades from around the country. More than a dozen magnet schools annually receive awards from Magnet Schools of America, a trade organization; the U.S. Department of Education has held them up as national role models, and educators from around the country come to see Wake's magnet programs.
But questions about the future of the magnet program have intensified since the school board voted last year to eliminate efforts to balance schools by socio-economic diversity in favor of neighborhood schools. For instance, some board members say it's fairer to offer more unique programs at non-magnet schools even if it means taking some offerings away from magnets.
"We need to evaluate how we can provide fairness, equity and parental choice for all our families," school board member John Tedesco said.
School administrators plan a deep review of the magnet program. That could result in creating new magnet schools and taking away some offerings at existing magnets in the 2012-13 school year. But that hasn't stopped parents from lobbying for changes for the 2011-12 school year.
A plea from York
At two public hearings last week, parents lobbied the board to make York Elementary School in northwest Raleigh a magnet school.
Parents argued it made no sense to leave York so under-enrolled at only 73 percent of capacity. Parents also said it would be more convenient for northwest Raleigh families to attend a magnet program at York instead of in Southeast Raleigh.
"It would be a win-win situation for this parent and the Wake County school system as a whole," York parent Courtney Cain said.
Tedesco, the school board member, said it would be hard to add a new magnet program at York this fall in light of the budget crunch facing the school system. Magnet schools typically cost more because of additional staff and, depending on the program, additional supplies and staff training.
Objections at Daniels
Another issue with magnet school implications that came up last week involved calls from parents at Daniels Middle School in Raleigh not to receive another 170 students from Southeast Raleigh. Staff had recommended moving the children to Daniels because it is closer to where they live but wouldn't take away seats at magnet schools.
But the Daniels parents argued that the additional students would overcrowd the school. Parents also argued that families who live around Daniels, near the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and Oberlin Road, may choose to go to charter schools and private schools if the school gets another large influx of low-income families.
The speakers from Daniels repeatedly suggested either leaving the Southeast Raleigh students at their current schools or sending them to magnet schools.
"There are many other Southeast Raleigh middle schools that are closer than Daniels," said parent Sallie Winters.
Effects in Garner
Parents have three more public hearings to comment on the reassignment plan.
Hearings in prior years have seen relatively low turnout from parents in Southeast Raleigh. But that could change this year with area children accounting for so many of the 4,703 students in the reassignment plan.
Thursday's hearing at Garner High School could also draw a lot of parents because so many Garner schools are impacted by the reassignment plan.
Historically, hearings in Garner have drawn turnout from local community leaders who object to so many low-income students being bused into town from Southeast Raleigh. The speakers also have argued that more Garner children should be assigned to schools in town.
Next Monday's hearing at Cary High School could draw demands from parents for faster implementation of neighborhood schools. For various reasons over the years, from diversity to crowding, many western Wake families don't necessarily go to their closest school.
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